3 things you need to earn notices, publish, and write

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sailing-boat-640There are three assets anyone needs for a career in books. See, you’ll craft a writing career out of your writing life. First you have a writing life, personal and intimate and regular. Then you move on to a writing career. Maybe not full-time, but you consider it your primary work.

The three assets are publicity, patience, and practice. Whether you choose to work with a publisher, a coach, or an editor—or strive to become one—those are three essentials. But no matter where you’re at in your career as a writer, using these three tools is crucial to finding the Joy of Writing. Sailing at the center of your journey of joy is help.

As you move into your career as a writer you’ll need publicity. At first that will be earning attention for your own work or the writing of your colleagues. Getting fluent with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, mapping the landscape of book review websites, plumbing publicity portals like BookBub and Bookbuzz— it’s all essential to publishing yourself. However, in time, you might be inclined to form a publishing venture, at first limited to yourself and few fellow writers.

Publishing can become the province of writers when they collaborate on its business. The flavor of the business day is to corral experienced writers with popular backlists of books, and then get these authors the money they deserve. After all, traditional publishing’s payouts are changing. An author in this kind of boutique press will learn the publicity world to succeed at this venture. Such boutique publishers might even discover more great books, ones that couldn’t find a publisher, and build careers for the undiscovered authors. Very nice work indeed. Getting notice for good work is the heart of publishing.

That leads us to another kind of help: assisting creativity. This is the aid which demands patience. While an author is building skills and polishes their own books, there are opportunities to reach out and help other writers. You might be doing beta reads for your friends’ full drafts, or even catching typos in a late-stage revision of a book. Given enough of this patient work, you may hear a calling to coach writers—that’s where the asset of patience pays off. Coaches guide writers to develop books and edit the text. The level of accountability for a coach can feel greater than one for a classroom teacher. Students pass, they fail, they rate a teacher up or down in surveys: that’s what’s at stake while teaching. Sometimes a teacher only gets three or four hours in front of 30 writers and never sees their writing.

In contrast, during coaching the author will look a coach in the eye (if they use FaceTime, or they meet in a coffee shop) and say things like “Explain why I can’t have three first-person points of view for this cozy mystery.” A coach takes a breath and does their best–and later evaluates the writer’s next set of pages to see if the advice helped the author. That counsel is powered by the talent of the author and that writer’s willingness to put in the hours. You must become the hard-working author who loves to put your early efforts well behind you. Plenty of teaching happens via email and Track Changes.

Of course practice, the third asset, helps everything improve. Practice makes doing the work easier, too. (Okay, at least you don’t need as much effort to finish a section or an assignment.) In the beginning of an editor’s career the books take longer to edit well. After a decade or two of reading the writing of others and then making it better, everyone’s time is better used. The editor returns drafts with development notes sooner. An editor who can coach will have seen more styles, as well as become more practiced at preserving a writer’s tone and voice.

fathers-day-buzzNear the end of the movie Genius, the legendary editor Max Perkins expresses the editor’s worry. “We might not be making these books better,” he says. “We might just be making them different.” Your editor is your collaborator in writing, an art that people believe is solitary work. Lately a few publishers have begun to give an editor a credit on the book. Buzz Bissinger’s memoir Father’s Day is called An Eamon Dolan Book, right out on the back cover. Eamon is Bissinger’s editor, collaborating with him on three books so far. Buzz gives him fulsome praise in the acknowlegements.

With Eamon as fastidious editor and wordsmith (some chapters had more of his comments than they did my own words), what began as an earnest and rudderless first draft became a book.

An Eamon Dolan Book sounds like “A Steven Spielberg Film.” It’s Buzz’s book, yes. The collaboration was powered by publicity, patience, and practice. The first feels like magic when it works. But it’s earned by applying the other two in order to create something worthy of public notice. Buzz admits his fine memoir was rudderless, but at least it was moving. Patience helped him steer the story. Practice, of course, was the wind in his sails.

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What You Need To Win With A Coach

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coachwhistleMaking a choice to employ a writing coach is an important step for an author. How do you choose? Ask a prospective writing coach how long they’ve been paid to write and edit. Ask about salaried writing and editing, editorial projects, articles, and books. Your coach should be able to answer the questions in years. Just like being an incumbent politician, that’s a record of work a seasoned coach gets to reference, and you get to check. That number of years is not any more important than those hard-earned Masters degrees. But it’s no less important, either.

I had the pleasure of working with Steve Adams to help coach me and develop my memoir Stealing Home: The Road to the Perfect Game. There’s the whole element of counseling and listening that turns out to be much more important than any Magic Famous Acronyms from a school. Steve had his MFA, yes, but he also had practical experience in working with writers. A Masters can be helpful, but being able to relate to an artist who’s finding the voice of their story — that is crucial. Some people want repairs to their work. Others like to have the way suggested. Your coach will know what you want because they will ask you, then do a test evaluation or a sample edit.

Like choosing a therapist, surgeon, or minister, it comes down to what kind of person your coach is at heart: you hope it’s someone with integrity and a following who’ll vouch for that integrity and the value of the coaching. There’s no certificate that says Writing Coach, not even an MFA. I like to say that doing your diligence about experience is the best way to find a winning match with a coach.

Making the Most of an Editor’s Time

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Max PerkinsThe Writer’s League of Texas has a superior Agents & Editors Conference each year here in Austin. I’ve attended, volunteered, been on faculty, pitched, and exhibited there over the last 10 years. Some writers attend to meet with agents in consulting appointments of 10 minutes. Others submit manuscript samples and synopses in an annual contest. Others just come to learn how the publishing business works and understand their genres better.

But there are probably fewer than 100 writers each year who come to meet with publishers’ editors. This year only three editors are taking consulting meetings, but does a limited number of writers make sense? Wouldn’t you rather talk to an editor, instead of an agent, about your book? You’d think a 10-minute meeting with someone who buys books, instead of an agent who represents and sells them to publishers, would be the smart way to go. There are good reasons why it’s not so simple. The WLT explains them well.

Why would I want to meet with an editor? Aren’t agents the ones who make the deals?”

Our answer: Editors can and do acquire books — but it’s very rarely that they acquire a book (or request materials) from a writer directly; an agent is almost certainly involved in this process.  Regardless, editors can offer valuable insight into agents who represent your type of work, should you need suggestions. What’s more, editors can offer valuable information on how to shape your story for not only agents and publishers, but for readers. They are also often experts on specific genres or categories and can share great advice that’s specific to what you’re writing.  For all of these reasons, and more, we invite editors to the conference and we make one-on-one consultations with them available.

BUT (very important) you should not select a meeting with an editor if your sole goal is having someone request materials or tell you they’d like to consider your work for publication. This is not a realistic goal for a meeting with an editor and you will likely be disappointed. We’re cautioning you here so that you don’t regret it later.

The League’s staff invites the curious author to call and learn more. Good show. Indeed, these editors don’t arrive to buy books. Everyone needs to see a book proposal these days, it seems. Even fiction authors get deals more easily with one. But an editor does a service to a conference attendee who meets with them. They tell them what they think of the book and the idea. It’s pretty much what an agent does at the conference. You pitch. They listen. They tell you what they think. In some cases the agent asks for a sample of the book.

Editor’s requests for a sample are not unheard of at the conference, though. One Workshop writer from my memoirs/nonfiction group said he got a request from a Big Five imprint for his full book after a meeting. Dave’s a worker and following through, but the important thing is that editors want unique, good books as badly as the agents who represent the authors writing those books. Time with an editor is almost always time well spent if you learn something and the book evolves.

When to Get Your Developmental Edit Done

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Professional editors advise writers to have their books edited. In fact, just about everybody in the industry will tell you an outside edit is essential, no matter how experienced you are. It’s not news that editing is needed to make a good book, one which sells instead of languishes on Amazon or in the publisher’s warehouse. Or in your hallway, if you’ve ordered your own pre-printed books.

What might come as news is when editing is needed, and what kind of editing comes first. Copy editing (sometimes called line editing) is not the first step to a better book. Developmental editing leads the parade to publication. Sometimes it’s called structural editing because the focus of developmental editing is the order of story in the book, as well as what it contains.

Characters are often developed as a book is written, but thinking about who’s in the story and why is a serious advantage to an author. It might seem like time better spent creating a draft. But character selection and development is crucial to keeping your creation time to a draft as short as is needed. Nobody wants to labor over and over to polish up and flesh out characters who will drop out, or end up being bit players in your story.

Developmental editing is as essential as developing photo film for pictures. Yes, taking pictures now requires no film. But photography has changed. Storytelling has not, and your development work builds your story. First you develop, and it’s almost impossible to do this on your own. If you have a professional beta reader, you can rely upon them. By pro I mean someone who’s seen a book to publication, and received editing along the way.) A friend who loves your writing may not provide enough help — even if you can get them to read every word.

An author came to me with a draft that brimmed with more than 80,000 words, a book in progress that already had been through a copy edit. While that work made the draft better, the book needed more work on structure and character. That copy editing was performed on thousands of words that were going to be cut, changed, or moved. Copy editing: essential, yes. But later. One high-flying story guru advises that the beginning of writing a book is the best time to develop it.

Lisa Cron’s written Wired for Story and other story structure books. She shared a tale about a writer who arrived in Cron’s inbox with 60,000 words completed. “I wish I could have been of help,” she told the author. It seemed too late in the game, especially if a writer thinks clean prose = finished book.

Loving A Book From An Editor’s Catbird Seat

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A few weeks ago, PBS ran a encore broadcast of “Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book needs no introduction, of course, being one of the essential novels taught from high school right through to university-level English and writing courses. 30 million copies have been sold in the book’s lifetime, and each year of its current life brings another quarter-million new volumes into reader hands.

tay_and_catWere it not for a gifted editor at a 1950s publisher, the book may never have changed so many lives. Few of those millions of readers probably know the name Tay Hohoff, but without her work, Harper Lee might only be a retired airline reservations clerk or a schoolteacher of English in Alabama. Garrison Keillor wrote a 2006 review of a Charles’ Shields’ Harper Lee biography, and in the review titled Good Scout he noted how Shields tipped his cap to Hohoff.

A year later, Lee has the beginnings of a novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which becomes “Atticus,” which, under the tutelage of a patient editor at Lippincott named Tay Hohoff (“dressed in a business suit with her steel gray hair pulled tightly behind her, . . . short and rail-thin with an aristocratic profile and a voice raspy from cigarettes”), after a cold winter night breakdown, she finishes in the summer of 1959.

An editor can make all the difference, but like the editors in cinema toiling over final cuts in dark rooms, these stewards of story don’t come out to take a bow very often. Hohoff wrote one book of her own, a 1971 salute to cats. Some of her best writing came in notes to authors like Lee.

Hohoff’s best work was in the service of someone else’s story. From a Newsweek article about who created To Kill a Mockingbird came this version of the genesis. It also explains that cold night’s breakdown.

“There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning,” said Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippencott, who described the submission to Lee’s biographer, Charles Shields. Still, Hohoff and the others at Lippencott saw something promising in it and took a chance. Lee clearly needed guidance — but she would get it. Lee rewrote the novel three times over the next two and a half years. At one point, she threw the manuscript out the window and called Hohoff. Her editor persuaded her to go outside and gather the floating pages.

There’s another editor in the wings of an even greater classic, Gone With the Wind. Lois Cole discovered the manuscript that Margaret Mitchell hurled at a “book scout” for the novel’s publisher. Revisions took three years on a novel that Mitchell drafted over the course of six years. The work of an editor was once the most essential part of lifting books into publication, but it’s a spotty experience by today. Novelists who have good editors rave over the collaboration rocket fuel that produces high fliers of books.

Do You Need a Developmental Edit, Or a Copy Edit? What’s A Pitch?

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blackwingNovelists contact me with manuscripts in hand. I’ve got 80,000 words, they say. Can you quote me on a copy edit, or a developmental edit? You use these edits in a different order. Developmental edits are different from a copy edit. The copy edit only takes place once you’ve chosen all of the paths the story will take, and the scenes that will remain. Developmental edits help you make those choices. What’s more, it’s better to have an outline, with not all of your book written, before you purchase a developmental edit.

(If you’re ready to see how copy editing looks — just to get an idea of whether you and your editor will be a good fit — a good editor should be able to edit a 500-word sample for free. It’s just a couple of pages worth, but you get the idea.)

How ready are you to pursue a publisher? One very important part of breaking in with publishers is your summary paragraph about your book. In about five sentences, tell me the most important things about the story.

Your entry to the whole process is your pitch. You use a pitch to get the attention of an agent, or an editor at a smaller press. It’s the one sentence you say when people ask, “So what’s your book about?”

Pitches for novels should contain setup, hook, and resolution:

When <character> discovers <catalyst>; s/he must <overcome problem> before <impending doom>, or else <stakes>.

Donald Maas (agent-book developer) had a good deal to say about stakes during the seminar I took with him in San Francisco. They are crucial, and the higher the stakes, the more compelling your story will be. They go all the way up to mortal stakes (your character will die, or someone they love will die.) You can even go beyond those mortal stakes. For example, in my novel Viral Times, millions of lives are at stake — because if Dayton Winstead cannot find the source of the MightyHand virus, then tens of millions of millions will be infected with HIVE-5.

At some point in the near future, you’ll have a chance to deliver the story you’ve written, perhaps by telling a pitch in person to an agent. That’s what conferences can offer you. What you do between now and then will give you a better opportunity to find someone who’s the right person to represent you.

You do research. Which books are like yours, not just in subject but in tone and style? Who agented them?  Use online resources like Publisher’s Lunch to sort through the known universe of agent submissions. Learn as much as you can, and start a list. Rank agents in order of likelihood of love match.

Self Publishing: Even with a network, you must invest in your process

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Third in a Series

Creative Coaching Series

Creative Coaching Series

A book is an effort of mighty collaboration. It probably doesn’t seem that way while you’re alone in your chair with the door closed on your writing space, revising what’s written or facing the blank page with your visions. But it takes a village of helpers to make a book. As a self-publisher, you will learn to rely on many people.

Viral-Times-gasmask-cover blogIn my acknowledgements for Viral Times, I listed 17 people who had a direct contribution to my debut novel. From early reading groups, where the content editing was free, down to the creative coaching, editing and proofreading, and finally to my most trusted reader Abby — my wife and the inspiration for the book — there were many people to rely upon.

Finally at the last, just before my proofreader Leslie Nail and my printer’s account manager Terry Sherrell helped make these words ready for press and ebook, my beloved bride Abby read through these people, the places and all the dreams that she has inspired and nurtured. Making a book can feel like making a movie once you write down all the names who have midwifed it. It’s been my joy to deliver this story at last—and also as the first book in my life as a novelist.

The first book in that life required an investment in paid editing, in due course. For me it was content editing and  proofreading, but for some writers you might get content editing for free — if you have experienced writers or language arts teachers in your network. But nearly everyone needs to pay for copyediting. Altogether the editing is probably going to look like $3,000 in budget. It did for me, and I applied my 30 years of copyediting to my final draft before Leslie Nail took after it with “light copyediting” alongside her proofing. The book contains about eight errors anyway, but that’s out of 98,000 words. No typos — but I can live with that percentage.

Guy Kawasaki, one of the founding Apple Computer gurus and now an expert on SelfPub, wrote a superior book with Shawn Welch on the creative magic of making your own book. In APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur; How to Publish a Book, there’s good advice on editing: It’s a stupid mistake to skip paying for the work, done by a pro.

The third challenge is figuring out how much to pay a content editor. The going rate for content editors is $50 per hour. Figure that content editing will take 20-30 hours, so you’ll be spending $ 1,000-$1,500 for these services. The going rate for copyediting is $35 per hour, and copyeditors can work their magic at the rate of roughly 10 pages per hour (although this can vary depending on the complexity of the material), so you’ll pay approximately $ 1,000-$1,500 for a 300-page manuscript. This is one of the dumbest places to try to save money, because poor copy editing destroys the quality of your book.

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